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House call: One-size-fits-all approach doesn’t work in screen time debate

Screen time has taken on a new meaning in the 21st century. Parents, child care providers and child behavior specialists are monitoring, evaluating and talking about much more than time spent in front of the TV. Today, screen time includes computers, video games, tablets and phones. The amount of content available on all of these devices has exploded along with the time spent in their use.

It’s overwhelming when much of the advice today is to limit kids older than 2 years old to two hours of screen time a day. The older children get, the more they are expected to use the computer as a resource. Sometimes homework is turned in via email or other online methods. Additionally, computer skills and savvy are necessary to be successful in many fields of employment, so you want your kids to know their way around a computer. How can a one-size-fits-all approach of two hours a day possibly fit into that equation?

I still recommend no screen time for children under 2. For older children, we need to consider a different approach and look at both the opportunities and the risks of using computers and the internet. There are things online that we need to protect our children from, but there are also educational, creative and socially positive things available that they can learn to use.

Every family is different with respect to interactions, income and values, so a single approach won’t work. Parents should discuss together what content they are and are not okay with having their children access. Then talk about it with the children to help them understand and buy into the restrictions the parents are going to be using with security settings and parental controls. This goes for tablets and phones as well as computers.

In families with multiple children, this can be a good learning opportunity for older siblings who may be allowed to access some content that younger ones cannot. It allows them to develop skills for how to effectively and properly keep a younger family member for accessing inappropriate content for his or her age.

It is important for children to learn to assess the suitability of content for themselves and to learn to self-regulate how much screen time they have. Spending time together online can be useful for learning both of these skills as can agreeing on time limits if you feel your child needs it. Having your child set a timer when screen time starts can be a good way for some children to learn to self-regulate.

Parents need to keep in mind that they are role models for their children. How you manage your online and offline life is a major influence in the habits that your child will develop. When I talk about “screens” with my patients, I stress that screens need to be balanced with physical activity. It is common for me to stress that children and adults need to spend as much time in active play and exercise as they do on screens. That is a tall order for some, but I hope it gets the point across that we need to avoid becoming so enmeshed with our computers that we neglect other important aspects of life and health.

This approach may be time consuming for parents, but it will create better bonds between parents and children, help children learn to be safe and effective online, and move both to create better balance in their lives.

Dr. Bob Riggs is a family medicine physician practicing at Kaiser Permanente’s Riverfront Medical Center.